Tip & Info
Tip & Info

Drugs and Alcohol – The Facts

An overview for parents

Let’s get started…

In 2013 a National Survey revealed some good news in that 72% of young Australians aged between 12 and 17 years were abstaining from alcohol.[1] It also showed that the age at which young people are first taking up tobacco smoking has risen from 14.2 to almost 16 years. Nevertheless, each year children and young people regularly contact Kids Helpline about alcohol or substance use issues relating to themselves or someone close to them. In 2013, Kids Helpline received 998 contacts from young people up to 24 years of age for help with their drug or alcohol concerns.[2] When alcohol and other substances are misused it does have a large impact on families, bystanders and the community in general.[3]

The purpose of this hot topic is to assist parents and carers in understanding the issue of alcohol and other drug use in children and young people, and to provide tips on ways to deal with it.[2]

What is drug abuse?

People often regard drug abuse as the consumption of alcohol and illicit drugs only, but many other types of substances can be involved. Misuse is when a pattern of harmful use develops which contributes to impaired judgement, psychological harm or to dysfunctional behaviours.

The types of substances that children and young people commonly use include:

  • illicit drugs (amphetamines, cannabis, etc)
  • alcohol, as well as products containing alcohol
  • tobacco products
  • inhalants (paint, glue, nail polish)
  • medications (pain killers, cough medicine, sedatives, stimulants)
  • performance enhancers (steroids)

Several of these substances are readily available and their sale and possession is not restricted by law – particularly medications and inhalants.

Let your kids know you care and remain approachable.
What is the impact of alcohol and other drug use?

Drug and alcohol use has the potential to cause a wide range of both short and long term problems for children and young people, including physical, psychological and even legal issues. For example the risk of accidents, violence, injury and self-harm are high in drinkers under the age of 18 years. Evidence is showing that early commencement of alcohol use is likely to be associated with the more frequently alcohol is consumed during a child’s adolescence, which in turn can lead to alcohol related harms in adolescence, and later in adulthood.[4]

Physical and behavioural concerns

The greater the amount, and the more often drugs or alcohol are used, the greater the potential for health problems. For example:

  • overdoses of some drugs may lead to organ failure or even death[5]
  • misusing prescription medications can cause problems if used with other substances
  • long-term use of many illicit and some prescription drugs can lead to dependence on the drug[6]
  • there is a strong association between substance use and sexual behaviour which increases the chances of catching sexually transmitted diseases[7]

Mental health concerns

Psychological risks involved with drug and alcohol use include:

  • Children and young people using drugs or alcohol as a way of handling the psychological stress of having a mental illness
  • Psychiatric disorders are a big risk factor in the uptake of drug or alcohol use
  • The potential to exacerbate existing mental health problems and even to trigger the onset of mental health problems such as depression and psychotic disorders
  • Impairment of reasoning and judgement which in some studies, have been related to an increase in risky sexual[8] and injecting behaviours[9]
  • Inhalants and marijuana can lead to long-term learning difficulties[10]
  • Some studies have found that the use of one drug is a risk factor for using additional drugs (polysubstance use). This in turn is more likely to result in a higher number of problems from drug use[11]

What can I expect?

Adolescence is a time of risk-taking, experimentation and testing boundaries, and using drugs or alcohol is often part of this developmental process. [12] Children and young people use drugs or alcohol for a number of reasons, including:

  • peer pressure (everyone else is using it so I may as well also)
  • to feel pleasure
  • to have more energy
  • to relax
  • to increase confidence in social situations
  • to get to sleep
  • to build muscle
  • to cope with problems[13]

The particular drug (including alcohol) that a child or young person chooses to use will depend upon both its expected effect and its availability. In addition, if children and young people believe they can use drugs or alcohol, whilst avoiding getting into trouble from parents/carers, their school or the law, they will be more likely to use it.

What can I do to manage this?

There are several things you can do to assist your child in making the right choices regarding drug and alcohol use. There are links to useful resources provided at the end of this page as well.

  • Create a safe and supportive environment where you can discuss the issue of drugs and alcohol – encourage them to raise any questions or concerns they may have and discuss strategies for overcoming peer pressure
  • Avoid the temptation to exaggerate the dangers of using drugs and/or alcohol – By making unrealistic claims about drug or alcohol use you may run the risk of your views being discounted by the young person
  • Educate yourself on the issue – Children and young people may want to know something specific about drugs and/or alcohol so it’s important to be able to give them this information, or at least know where you can find answers
  • Be on the lookout for opportunities to educate children and young people – For example, if a well-known athlete is caught using performance-enhancing drugs, talk about why they may have been tempted to use them as well as the potential adverse consequences for the athlete’s health and career
  • Talk about the dangers of legally available substances – Inhalants found in spray cans and medications such as pain killers are just as dangerous as illicit drugs, even though they can be legally obtained by children and young people
  • Be a role model to children and young people – In order to provide a good example to children and young people, model the kinds of healthy behaviours you would like them to adopt. This includes drinking alcohol in moderation or quitting smoking
  • Help children and young people become more resilient – Drug and alcohol use may be used by some people as a way of dealing with life stresses. Teaching your child/young person to effectively deal with difficult times using healthy coping approaches can help them in the future
  • Set clear expectations for children and young people – Be sure to discuss the consequences of not adhering to your expectations. Such expectations may include:
    • not bringing drugs/alcohol into the house or misusing any other substances
    • not inviting friends who use drugs over to the house
    • not allowing drugs/alcohol to be brought to functions you are hosting. You can in some circumstances be legally liable for injuries or damage that occurs as a result of underage drug/alcohol use
  • Help build self-esteem by encouraging young people to do their best at school/work and letting them know when they have done well at something – By helping to build their self-esteem, you reduce the chance that they will use drugs or alcohol to try to feel better about themselves
  • Be aware of what’s going on in your child’s life so that you can see early warning signs, such as behaviour changes for no apparent reason – If you notice a change, try asking if they are experiencing any problems or why they seem to be acting differently. If you suspect there may be drug or alcohol use involved, raise this in a supportive manner
  • Keep alcohol, medications and other harmful products out of the reach of children and young people – By making them less accessible, it will reduce the potential for engaging in drug or alcohol use
  • If your child/young person is regularly using drugs or alcohol and is unable to stop by themselves, they may need to seek professional assistance – A number of services across Australia address drug and alcohol disorders. Contact your state’s Parentline to find out what’s available near you
Calm conversations with your kids will always be more productive.


1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.(2013). National drugs strategy household surveys (NDSHS). Australian Government. Retrieved from:

2. yourtown. (2013). Kids Helpline Overview: The key issues affecting kids and young people in Australia in 2013.

3. National Health and Medical Research Council. (2009). Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Commonwealth of Australia.

4. National Health and Medical Research Council . (2009). p. 58

5. The Partnership for a Drug Free America. (2007). Drug guide for parents. Retrieved from: on 1 September 2014

6. The Partnership for a Drug Free America. (2007).

7. Floyd, L., & Latimer, W. (2010). Adolescent sexual behaviours at varying levels of substance use frequency. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, 19(1): 73.

8. Floyd. (2010). p.72

9. Dunn, M., Day, C., Bruno, R., Degenhardt, L., & Campbell, G. (2010). Sexual and injecting risk behaviours among regular ecstasy users. Addictive Behaviors, 35(2): 157.

10. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2009). Research report series: inhalant abuse.

11. Chun, T., Spirito, A., Hernandez, L., Fairlie, A., Sindelar-Manning, H., Eaton, C., & Lewander, W. (2010). The significance of marijuana use among alcohol-using adolescent emergency department patients. Academic Emergency Medicine, 17(1): 63.

12. Australian Psychological Society. (2008). Substance use: a position statement prepared for the Australian Psychological Society. Melbourne.

13. Chiong, A., Bry, B., & Johnson, V. (2010). Mediators between coping styles and substance use/intentions in urban, high school freshmen. Addictive Behaviors, 35(1): 57.

This topic was last reviewed November 2014

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